The recent motion in parliament condemning the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel has generated a controversial debate surrounding the legitimacy of BDS. Opponents such as Cole Forster writing in last week’s Gateway argue that the movement is anti-Semitic and an obstruction to peace. However, one has to contextualize BDS in the broader history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to truly understand its motivations rather than to superficially judge it as “insidious.”
After decades of occupation, settlements and policies reminiscent of South African apartheid (both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela themselves have drawn these comparisons to the Israeli occupation), Palestinians grew increasingly frustrated, and rightfully so.
Despite attempts at reconciliation through both formal and informal processes, such as the Oslo Accords and collaborations with Israeli peace activists, Palestinians saw no progress in a situation that only continued to oppress and steal their lands. In 2005, Palestinian NGOs officially gave a call to boycott Israel as a means to pressure the state into ending its apartheid policies. Opponents of BDS fail to recognize that it was the Palestinians themselves who called for global solidarity within its boycott campaign. BDS didn’t spring out of the void — it was a conscious decision made after decades of oppression.
Palestinian institutions, groups and individuals themselves called out for support against Israeli apartheid — a “label” that may seem insidious to some but is in fact the reality on the ground for Palestinians, both in Israel and in the territories, as they face systemic persecution on the basis of their identity.
In order to dismantle structures of oppression, one has to recognize, acknowledge and support the calls that the oppressed themselves make and within this case, BDS is a response to that call. The notion that Israel is a pluralistic, democratic state is one that is rejected by not only the Palestinians but other minorities such as African refugees, Bedouins and so on. One of the usual and inaccurate accusations towards the BDS movement is the issue of anti-Semitism, that BDS has a discriminatory focus on “Jewry.” Yet some of the most prominent groups and individuals advocating for BDS have been Jewish, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and academics such as Israeli historian Illan Pappé and Sarah Schulman. The BDS campaign focuses on the discriminatory and oppressive policies towards Palestinians used to supposedly protect “Jewish” nationality. However, Israel operates as a state and not as an official voice for the Jewish people as a whole.
Moreover, while opponents argue that BDS ultimately puts Palestinians out of jobs, this argument excuses the oppressive structures imposed upon the Palestinians. The issue of job security cannot be assumed without first removing the structures that impoverish Palestinians to begin with — which Palestinians argue is the Israeli occupation. To highlight Israel as an “oasis of democracy” in the Middle East legitimizes, undermines, and excuses the occupation, wars, ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian peoples.
The BDS campaign brings to light the decades of Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinian peoples, and serves as a legitimate and serious form of protest against these continuing practices. Palestinian people have called upon solidarity groups to join this global movement and to deny the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle ultimately denies their oppression.